IF Caravaggio had lived in our century, he could have been a 1940's Hollywood director. The cliche asserts that he was the inventor of cinematic lighting for dramatic effect; and one can well imagine Davis and Crawford, murderous in his melodramatic chiaroscuro. There would have been reports of wild parties in Bel Air. A posthumous biography, referring to his possible sadomasochism and probable paedophilia, would have provoked litigation. He would have loomed large in Hollywood Babylon.
But the baroque painter did not live in the 1940's. Or did he? In Caravaggio (Lumiere; the external scenes — shot, like everything else, in a Limehouse studio — suggest a squalid, backstreet Rome of 40 years ago: motorbikes, slacks, cigarettes. It is only when we go within and up the social scale that we return to seventeenthcentury costume.
Other flagrant incongruities and anachronisms abound. A critic reads about Caravaggio in FMR magazine; and later, when reviewing him in his bath, slumps over the side like David's Marat. Young Caravaggio is a precocious, illiterate aggressive street-urchin in the hands of Dexter Fletcher; miraculously, he matures into Nigel Terry's painter, with the beautifullycaressed vowels of the experienced Shakespearean' thespian.
Director Derek Jarman, obsessed by his project for six years, conceives of Caravaggio's life as a series of retrospections from his deathbed, as though all the artist's career had been passed in death's shadow. But little ofellis life is shown; and what we do see is often extemporisation: we do not know that he murdered his lover, Ranuccio.
Jarman is an imaginative speculator, not a biographer; rather than contrive a plot, he has filmed a sequence of tableaux vivants, many reproduced from the paintings. Conventional dialogue is sacrificed to Terry's panting monologues about immortality, love, lust and glory (surely Jarman's obsessions as much as Caravaggio's); monologues reminiscent in their erotic, rhapsodically purple imagery, of Genet.
And like Genet, Jarman glories in grime: his camera peers pruriently at the rotting teeth and dirty limbs of the urchins immortalised as saints and gods.
Anyone making a feature for less than £500,000 deserves congratulation. But rather than stimulating any interest in the life of the painter or making any arresting observations about him, Caravaggio may seem to many too personal and introspective a treatment of its director's preoccupations.
How often Hollywood must have given thanks to Watergate. Cinema and television were not slow to portray a nation's lack of faith in the integrity of the West's most powerful government. Marie (ABC, Shaftesbury Avenue, '15') casts Sissy Spacek as Marie Ragghianti, the Tennessee state extradition officer who uncovers a network of corrupt officials selling prison pardons. Her ensuing legal battle brings down the state governor himself.
The story is factual and director Roger Donaldson was committed to authenticity. Several scenes were filmed in Tennessee State Prison; Fred Thompson, the Watergate lawyer who defended Marie's case in 1976, plays himself.
Taking as its credo Burke's dictum — "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" — the film is uncompromising in its sympathies for Marie. She is a woman alone. She works as a waitress while bringing up her children and working for a university degree.
Her challenge to governmental corruption is a lone crusade. Streep and Lange could have been cast (both actresses happy to dominate a film as solitary women); but Spacek holds her own, avoiding false heroism and cheap sentimentality while embodying the virtues of Middle America.
(For this is another example of the American Pastoral: drawling accents dramatise America's neuroses in that expanse remote from cosmopolitan cities — "in America, you can sue anybody you want"; and after Badlands and Coalminer's Daughter, is Spacek's third successful investigation of that genre.)
The film's construction worries one slightly: the opening moments are slow and confused by many conflicting strands of plot; there are few dramatic confrontations and little analysis of Marie's political enemies; and the courtroom scene is hurried and lacks tension. But for Spacek's sake, the flaws should be overlooked.
Another of cinema's favourite predicaments is the drama of the high seas. The Lightship (Odeon, Haymarket, '15') presents the highjacking of a ship by a paranoic and two henchmen. Klaus Maria Brandauer's noble Captain Miller, the guardian of the light by which all other benighted vessels steer, somehow lacks spirit. The tension which should be born of claustrophobia never quite bites; the henchmen are grotesques of violence and the other crew members lack psychological depth.
But salvation is at hand. Jerzy Skolimowski — the KGB colonel in White Nights, now back behind camera — was blessed in securing Robert Duvall. This mesmerising actor is superb as Caspary, a comicsinister paranoid dandy certain of his own logic but lost without an audience — compelling.